Corridor Through the Clouds: The Legacy of Japan Asia Airways


Today, aviation routes connecting Japan and Taiwan are bustling with activity. Travelers can fly major Japanese and Taiwanese carriers like Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, and China Airlines or choose one of a number of low-cost carriers. Flights are no longer limited to hubs like Narita International and Taoyuan International, either; service is available at numerous regional airports.

Air traffic between the two countries has not always been so robust, though. Until around 15 years ago, the sticky question of Taiwan’s status with regard to Japanese-Sino relations prevented Japanese national flag carrier JAL from flying to Taiwan and kept Taiwanese giants CAL and Eva Air from landing at Narita.

For many years, the only Japanese carrier flying to Taiwan was Japan Asia Airways. Now defunct, the airline was established as a subsidiary of JAL to take over Taiwan and Hong Kong routes the larger carrier had to relinquish when in 1974 it started offering flights to the Chinese mainland. When I was growing up in the 1990s, my family often flew JAA to visit relatives in Taiwan, and as a boy I remember staring idly at the airline’s logo, oblivious that the “Asia” emblazoned on the side of aircraft symbolized Taiwan’s atypical geopolitical status.

From Colony to Country

Japan opened the first official sea transportation route with Taiwan shortly after claiming the island as a colony in 1895. Transport firms Osaka Shōsen Kaisha and Nippon Yūsen Kaisha operated steam liners, ferrying goods and people between the ports of Kobe in Japan and Keelung in Taiwan. Over a half century, tens of thousands of Taiwanese, including many prominent entrepreneurs and political figures, ventured across the sea and set down roots in Kobe and other parts of Japan, forming the basis of today’s large Taiwanese community.

Prior to World War II, airlines like Imperial Japanese Airways established commercial air routes to Taiwan, but cost and limited seating capacity of aircraft kept these early aviation endeavors from competing in any serious way with steamships. The sea remained the main route connecting Japan and Taiwan into the war years. However, by 1944 Japanese national defenses were crumbling and vessels were regularly attacked and sunk by US military forces. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, steamship service was at a standstill; it only resumed on a limited basis when the voluntary repatriation of Taiwanese began in December.

In the early postwar years, regional instability in East Asia and other issues kept the sea and air routes between Japan and Taiwan largely closed. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan after it was defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist regime, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Then, in 1950, the start of the Korean War resulted in the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula along Communist and Western-backed lines. In occupied Japan, the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers strictly controlled transportations routes and banned all Japanese aviation activities for the duration of the occupation, including even the ownership and construction of aircraft.

From Sea to Air

The transportation situation between Japan and Taiwan began to change in the latter half of the 1950s with the emergence of mid- and long-range, four-engine jet airliners like the Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, and Convair 880. These aircraft ended the supremacy of passenger liners and ushered in a new age in air travel. The Convair 880 was particularly influential early on, as carriers like JAL, Taiwanese Civil Air Transport, and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific used the aircraft to establish new routes in the region.

During these heady years Civil Air Transport played an important role in keeping the Taiwanese community in Japan connected with relatives at home. It was one of the first airlines to offer Taipei-Tokyo flights, launching the route in April 1950. However, CAT was an unusual national carrier in that it was funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency and served both a civil and clandestine military role. The airline was eventually shuttered and passed its title as national flag on to China Airlines, which in 1967 launched the first Taipei-Osaka-Tokyo route.

Japan Airlines was established in 1951 and began flying to Taiwan in July 1959. The Tokyo-Taipei route eventually became the carrier’s second largest money maker after its service to Honolulu. By 1970, the year it started flying the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, JAL and its rival CAL together accounted for nearly half of all Japan-Taiwan flights.

International political developments would soon change this, though. In 1971, Taiwan withdrew from the UN after losing its seat at the body to the mainland Communist regime. The following year, Japan began working to normalize relations with the PRC, including negotiating an agreement with the Taiwanese government to officially end diplomatic relations—they would continue at the nongovernmental level, though.

The Birth of an Airline

The fact that JAL did not fly to the PRC enabled the airline to capitalize on the strength of Japan-Taiwan relations and build its Taiwan routes into lucrative ventures. This changed dramatically, though, when Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei on September 25, 1972, made a historic flight to Beijing aboard a JAL aircraft. Tanaka was met at the airport by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and a sizable entourage that, coincidentally, included interpreter Lin Liyun, a Taiwanese who had grown up in Kobe during the colonial period before moving to the mainland in 1951. Japan’s Chinese community cheered the image of Tanaka and Zhou shaking hands. However, the meeting would have severe repercussions on the future of the Japan-Taiwan air route.

In negotiating a civil air transport agreement with Japan, China outwardly accepted Japan continuing its aviation arrangement with Taiwan while demanding that certain new conditions be met. These included assurances that Chinese planes would not be lined up next to Taiwanese aircraft at Japanese airports, that Taiwanese planes landing in Japan would not be allowed to display the national flag, and that Japan would officially end its civil aviation agreement with the ROC.

Officials at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Transport (now Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism) presented the PRC’s requests to Japanese leadership for approval. Tanaka and others bowed to Chinese pressure, agreeing to many of the conditions. This included JAL suspending its Taiwan routes; moving CAL’s Osaka flights to a different airport; regulating flight arrival times at Haneda Airport for CAL and the Civil Aviation Administration of China—the PRC’s national aviation authority—until the completion of Narita International Airport, which would then be used solely by the CAAC; and the Japanese government reevaluating its stance on the inclusion of China in CAL’s name and its flag-carrier status.

When Tokyo and Beijing signed an air transport agreement on April 20, 1974, Japanese Foreign Minister Ōhira Masayoshi declared that Japan would no longer recognize the emblem of CAL as representing a sovereign state. In response, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Shen Chang-huan announced that Taiwan was suspending CAL’s service to Japan and that JAL aircraft were no longer welcome in Taiwanese airspace. For people who long depended on these air services, the sudden ending of flights came as an unforgettable shock.

With direct service cut off, passengers were forced to seek out what few seats were available on carriers like Korean Air and to take meandering routes through other airports in the region. The situation only improved after Miyazawa Kiichi replaced Ōhira as foreign minister. Speaking at a meeting of the Upper House Foreign Affairs Committee in July 1975, Miyazawa hinted that resumption of flights was in the works when he stated that Japan could not deny Taiwan recognition as a nation and its sun-in-the-blue-sky ensign as a national flag. In August that year, Japan Asia Airways was launched as a subsidiary of JAL; in September it began flying between Tokyo and Taipei, adding an Osaka-Taipei route the following July. In return, CAL in October 1975 resumed direct flights to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, though not to Itami Airport in Osaka, and added the Japanese capital as a stopover on its American routes.

Legacy of an Airline

Although air traffic resumed, the fact that JAL was kept for political reasons from flying its mainline aircraft to Taipei illustrated Taiwan’s unusual status in the international community. European carriers opening routes to mainland China took similar steps to keep from ruffling China’s feathers, including setting up special Asian subsidiaries or using neutral liveries for planes, enabling them to be used on both Chinese and Taiwanese routes. Although most of these schemes have been discontinued, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines still operates its subsidiary KLM Asia, whose planes are void of any Dutch national symbols and sport only a stylized KLM logo.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but growing up as a Japanese-Taiwanese, I remember thinking it was strange not to find Taiwan listed alongside other countries of the world in my school textbooks. Looking back, having to rely on an airline created simply to oblige China’s demands was equally marginalizing. At the same time, though, I have to recognize the vital role JAA played in rebuilding Japan-Taiwan relations.

In particular, the airline helped transform Japan’s popular image of Taiwan. Up to 50 years ago, what little tourism there was to Taiwan revolved largely around the island’s dubious reputation as a “male getaway.” However, this began to change when JAA in February 1976 started offering tours specifically targeting female travelers. The campaign featured commercials starring well-known Taiwanese-born singer Judy Ongg and was the first of many over subsequent decades that promoted Taiwan as a “women friendly” destination. One of the more successful ads, aired in 1998, showed Japanese-Taiwanese actor Kaneshiro Takeshi casually going about town on a scooter and stopping to enjoy tea and dumplings served Taiwanese style.

In the 2000s, the restrictions that had weighed on the Tokyo-Taipei air route began to ease up. In 2002, CAL and Eva Air were given authorization to land at Narita Airport, and in 2006 CAL resumed flights to Osaka for the first time in 32 years. In a historical development, cross-strait charter flights started up; since 2005 these have continued to expand. Amid this sea of change, JAA saw its role diminish, and in April 2008 it was absorbed into JAL when the carrier resumed flights to Taiwan.

In the decade since JAA ceased operations, Japan-Taiwan routes have continued to expand. In October 2010 regular flights started from Taipei Songshan, which also houses a military airbase, to Haneda , and in October 2015 a new route linking Kansai International and Tainan Airport was established.

In the decades when only a few carriers flew Tokyo-Taipei routes, JAA played a pivotal role in rebuilding Japan-Taiwan relations and paved the way for later airlines.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A Japan Asia Airways Boeing 747 on the tarmac at Narita International Airport. © Jiji.)

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